Monday 30 January 2017

Finding The Beat

Happy 2017.

Luther at the Diet of Worms. Yes. The Diet of Worms.
Okay, I’m about a month late on that. I’ve had a strange January, mostly spend trying to write a comedy about the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, called A Monk’s Tale: Relics, Revolt and Reformation. Nobody has asked me to do this. It’s not been commissioned by anyone and I haven’t received a grant. It’s a show that I think needs to be written because I think that the Reformation is significant for so many reason. I’m also trying to follow up the success of my previous live show called The God Particle. All that said, at the end of the day, you’d be perfectly justified in calling it a vanity project. A Monk’s Tale is hopefully going to be on at the Edinburgh Fringe, and touring the UK in Sept-Nov.

The Sitcom Geeks podcast, however, has been ticking over and so in the unlikely even that you’ve been getting withdrawal symptoms from the lack of blogging, do go and catch up on various episodes here.

But for now, let’s answer a question I was asked last year on Twitter by @JoChallacombe who asked:

What are “beats” and why do so many writers fill their scripts with people waiting for them? But seriously, I don’t really understand what the term means.
To be honest, Jo, it sounds like you do what the term means, but for the avoidance of doubt, there are two meanings of the word 'beat' in comedy writing. You’re clearly asking about one kind, but I’ll mention the other in passing.

Story Beats
A beat, in the context of a story, is an event, or a plot development. Sometimes, you talk about beating out a story (snigger), and what that means is working out what happens from beginning to end, figuring out the turning points and the various stages. The Americans tend to call this breaking a story. But at the end of that process, you might end up with what some would call a ‘beat sheet’. You might called this a story outline or even a treatment. I’m never entirely sure which is what. But a beat sheet is probably a couple of pages long and the various progressions in the story might be numbered. If it’s the main story, you might have between 9 and 20 numbers. If you’re a single camera show, you can probably move faster. If you’re a studio show, your beats will probably be fewer. But there will always be exceptions to that.

Pausing Beats
A beat is a pause. It’s a moment, a short delay before someone speaks. And you normally write "(beat)" in the script before the line.

What makes the beat funny? Why do writers litter their scripts with them? I’m not entirely sure, although some scripts have more than others. The beat itself is not usually funny, but it often makes the line it precedes funny.

There are just times when you know, as a writer, that a line will be funnier if there is a short beat before it.

Perhaps some beats are funny because they turn a passive reaction line into an active line for a character. The character has taken a moment, and now is speaking deliberately, rather than just instinctively. Which can be funny in some circumstances, especially when it changes the meaning and the tone.

Perhaps in a busy scene where there are lots of jokes and ideas and concepts flying around, that moment gives our brains all a chance to catch up and get ready for the next joke. Or that beat is functioning as the large patch of white space on the page so that the main thing is obvious and clear.

The danger of over-using the beat in a script is that you’re essentially directing the script on the page, rather than leaving the actor and the director to find the funniest version of that line. But, as I’ve said in previous posts, you get so little time to rehearse and ‘find’ the line, that a helpful nudge can be appreciated.

But like most things, if you do them too often, they will be annoying. Hope that helps.


There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon.

It's also available as a PDF here.

"Always insightful and honest" - Russell, Amazon Review


  1. Ah! This was something that was also confusing me. Thanks for clearing that up. A 'beat' is clear now it's explained and definitely something that I recognise in scenes. It must be tricky to know where to put them though, how to use them to benefit a script. I guess this just comes with practice.

  2. Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead uses a fair few of them - including:

    GUIL: Give us this day our daily cue.

    (Beat, pause. Sit. Long pause.)

    ROS (after shifting, looking around): What now?

    I saw a student production once that literally used a drumbeat wherever "beat" was used. Always wondered if it was a misinterpretation, in-joke or an older quasi-Shakespearean version.